Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Central Problem in Higher Education Reform

There is a lot of talk about "reform," "revolution," and "disruptive change" in higher education. Not a week goes by when we don't see an article about MOOCs, or online education, or the Khan Academy, or some other new and exciting Next Great Thing. Many in higher ed are genuinely concerned about the sustainability of our enterprise - as we should be.

While not every board of trustees will go bananas and fire their president in a panic (as UVA's apparently did), there clearly are demands building for change. Lots of interesting sub-conversations are going on: are government subsidies for higher ed driving up the price? Can online education provide the same quality and results as traditional education? Are for-profit universities innovators or charlatans?

All of these are important conversations, and I wish I had more time to keep track of them all. At present, I try to take in what I can, and so appreciate it when nice people at the Chronicle summarize multiple arguments for me, as one columnist did here.

The entire article linked there is worth reading. But there's one particular spot that I thought especially noteworthy, in a broader discussion coming out of MIT's Media Lab about fundamentally reconceptualizing education:
In the words of Joi Ito, the dynamic new head of the lab, himself a famous college dropout, the key to 21st-century learning is "antidisciplinary," not just "interdisciplinary." Ito's goal is "a world of seven billion teachers," where everyone on the planet has something important to teach to someone else, and everyone does.
This, it seems to me, starts to get at the fundamental business challenge faced by higher ed. In this case, I think Mr. Ito has it wrong, but at least he's raising the central question.

What is that central question? Briefly put, if you want something like university education to be sustainable this is the puzzle you have to solve: how do you get somebody to pay enough money to subject experts in exchange for them developing that expertise and sharing it with others who want it?

I emphasize the term "experts" here, because this is where I think the "seven billion teachers" image is misleading, even misguided. It's not that we don't all have something to learn from each other. But not all knowledge is equally valid or equally useful. Would you learn chemistry from an auto mechanic? Neuroscience from a lawyer? Music from an accountant? The "wiki" approach to knowledge is interesting, but it doesn't generate the knowledge and innovation we really want - the stuff that advances our understanding and makes things better than they are now.

The problem with expertise is that it takes time and effort to acquire and maintain - and that means that somebody has to pay for it. With a few notable exceptions, few people will dedicate their lives to becoming good enough at something that they are competent to teach it to others for free. People need to make a living, and many people want to not just survive but have the resources to improve their and their children's lives. So somebody has to pay.

All of the other conversations - about MOOCs, online education, for-profit vs. non-profit, disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary, government grants vs. student debt loads - are dancing around this one central puzzle. We need to figure out, as a society, how we pay for something we clearly want - the development and dissemination of expertise. The present model of universities, for all that it is flawed and old, manages to accomplish this. When somebody comes along with a better way of achieving the same thing, people will sit up and take notice. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy the conversation - I just haven't seen any real answers yet.

1 comment:

  1. Great question-- this is really at the heart of the matter!